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Combatting the crisis: How nonprofits are reimagining mental healthcare

Samantha Topoloski and Alyssa Williams talk while feeding Otis the pig. The two prepared the food during Children’s Grief Camp at The Lands at
Hillside Farms.

As barriers to mental healthcare like stigma, insurance costs, and a statewide shortage of providers impedes some Pennsylvanians from accessing mental health resources, several nonprofits are working to meet the needs of underserved areas.

The way that some of these nonprofits address those needs, however, is a bit unconventional.

“Y’know, [listeners] can’t see that right now you’re getting half-eaten, I guess, by a cow. How’s this going?”

“It’s going well.”

That’s nine-year-old Ivy O’Doyle playing with calves at The Lands at Hillside Farms. The cows – all between a day and a few weeks old – are nibbling at everything in sight, waiting for their gallon-sized baby bottles to be brought over by the kids.

“It’s fun being with the animals,” says O’Doyle.

O’Doyle and the other children at Hillside were part of Children’s Grief Camp, a week-long program for kids ages six to fourteen coping with loss. Suzanne Kapral, Director of Marketing and Development, promotes care farming, which aims to heal trauma through farm activities. She says that finding the right therapeutic environment can revolutionize treatment.

“You and I are sitting on a bench right now. We’re chilling. There’s birds in the background. I can feel the wind, I can feel the sunshine, and I can breathe in this clean air, and it just does something to relax my boundaries,” says Kapral.

15-year-old counselor-in-training Isabella Ronchetti first came to camp a year ago as a participant. She says she came back to share what she learned from camp a year ago to younger kids.

“We try and help [the kids] with coping skills, and stuff to do [to cope], and how to talk about it, how to feel [about loss] and everything. Any feeling is obviously okay, but some [kids] don’t know that,” Ronchetti says.

Kapral says that grief camp helps kids feel normal – something they may not experience at school or in clubs where they may be the only one coping with loss.

“If somebody is coloring, or somebody is doing one of the exercises we have, maybe they mention something. And y’know, it’s not uncommon for another child to say, ‘Me too,’” Kapral says.

Kapral is not the only provider that advocates for outdoor therapeutic treatment.

“No matter what you’ve seen or experienced as trauma in your life, it stays in your body and in your mind until you can process it and work it through.”

That’s Dr. Patricia Rodriguez-Hudson. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Country Heart Farm (CHF), an animal and equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) and equine-assisted learning (EAL) animal sanctuary. Rodriguez-Hudson started CHF in 2016 after seeing a rise in self-harm among young patients while working as a nurse practitioner. She says working with horses can ground kids and adults as they handle emotional stressors.

“The powerful way [that we address mental health concerns] is the power of the horse, the power of the animal, the power of nature. And it’s about the connections – you’re here at a safe, non-judgmental zone,” says Rodriguez-Hudson.

In EAP, a licensed mental health professional works with participants through mental health issues like PTSD, addiction, and coping with chronic illnesses. Its counterpart, EAL, does not require a medical professional but can teach teamwork, empathy, and problem-solving skills.

Just as both Hillside and CHF apply outdoor therapeutic treatment, their practices started in part because their communities lacked access to mental health resources. Rodriguez-Hudson says running CHF allows her to work with people who may not be able to afford treatment or feel overly ‘therapized’ by traditional therapy.

“My family has always been very, ‘We believed in giving back to the village that raised us,’” Rodriguez-Hudson says.

Like Rodriguez-Hudson and Hillside’s Suzanne Kapral, Ricky Korb from Wayne County’s YMCA also sees holistic therapeutic treatment as a way to help underserved communities. Korb, the county YMCA’s Well-being Initiative Coordinator, schedules free mental health programs: like ‘Momma Bears,’ a support group for pregnant or postpartum women, and ‘Recovery Roots,’ a substance abuse support and prevention group for teenagers. He says groups like these help address inequalities in healthcare access in Wayne County, a predominantly rural area.

“You have to go through your insurance [to get mental health treatment]. And if you’re not going through your insurance, then it’s very expensive to find that treatment,” Korb says. “So, we’re there for people who are low-income, don’t have the extra money to spend to go to like a yoga class once a week [but] want to try and take care of themselves.”

Korb says he often works in connection with Wayne County’s Wellness Committee to plan events that would help the community, but he emphasizes that improving access to individualized mental health opportunities has a long way to go across Pennsylvania.

“The better that they’re integrated, the better. Y’know, there’s a lot of meetings that go on, like the Wellness Committee and a bunch of task forces that try to kind of connect with each other, so when we see someone who needs one thing, we know where to send them,” Korb says.

Nonprofits like YMCA, Hillside Farms, and Country Heart Farm, work to meet the needs of their communities through untraditional mental health programs. Hillside’s Suzanne Kapral says her work requires herself and her team to take care of themselves as they take on the challenges of providing grief counseling and other mental healthcare resources to their community.

“And even when [the kids] are happy and they’re running around, and they’re playing games, and they’re being kids – you still understand the reason why they’re here. Or what they’re going home to,” Kapral says. “And as such, we stress a lot to anyone – our volunteers, our Hillside Farms staff, anybody who comes around – you need to practice self-care.”

Combatting the mental health crisis takes a village of municipalities, nonprofits, and community members. As Pennsylvanians work to increase support across all communities, one thing is clear, mental health access is changing – and may come from a little dirt and a few boisterous animals.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.